I'm a woman in my 30s and I have decided to give online dating a try. I'm not having much luck meeting men out at bars, and many of my girlfriends are coupled or married. However, I've heard so many horror stories, especially the recent [Craigslist] incident that has been on the news. How can I go about online dating in a safe way?
-- R.T., Buffalo
A: Internet dating definitely has some positives. It's especially good for people who don't have much dating experience, or people who haven't been single for a long time and are out of practice, such as widows or newly divorced individuals. The sites out there today do give people the opportunity to meet someone new and, at the very least, perhaps make a new friend. Internet dating can also help you identify your strengths and weaknesses as a date and improve your social skills.
Despite the positives, it's extremely important to keep in mind that a lot of people go online to play around, and some of these people are married or otherwise not single. We all tell white lies on occasion, but in a virtual reality, the chance you will encounter dishonesty is higher than in the "real world." You have to become your own detective.
Things people most commonly lie about are height, weight, occupation and marital status. Many people also post old photos of themselves from their younger, more attractive days. It's truly confusing why people lie about their appearance when they know they will have to meet face-to-face eventually.
I posted a profile when online dating first became popular over a decade ago. I ended up talking to a man who described himself as "5-foot-11 and stocky." I liked his pictures and thought maybe this could turn out well. When we met in person it was clear that his definition of stocky was confused with morbid obesity. The photos from his page were obviously old, and I was offended that he didn't represent himself truthfully prior to meeting.
My point is that you never know who is really on the other side of the computer screen, so you need to be careful. There are a number of things you can do to ensure your personal safety, which comes first and foremost.
When setting up your profile, avoid using a sexy or suggestive username. Keep your page simple, and be honest without oversharing (that's not only dangerous, it can be a turnoff).
When you come across someone who seems interesting, only correspond two or three times via e-mail before you meet in person. People who spend hours virtually chatting with someone and building chemistry are at higher risk of being manipulated into sharing private information before you meet.
Choose a public place to meet, and do not -- for any reason -- accept an invitation to someone's home or let him pick you up for a date until you've had several dates. Always drive yourself to the date, because if someone is a creep, you don't want him knowing where you live.
Obviously you should not give out your home phone number, home address or place of employment. Also, make sure you let a close friend or family member know where you will be meeting this person in case of an emergency. If you have children, don't mention their names or their school district.
You're dating at your own risk, but it can be a positive experience if you do it right, pay attention and keep yourself out of dangerous situations.
Patti Novak owns Buffalo Niagara Introductions (www.buffaloniagaraintro.com). E-mail questions to firstname.lastname@example.org and include your initials and hometown.